Poland passed a controversial bill this week providing criminal penalties for people who use phrases like “Polish death camps,” or suggest any complicity at all on the part of the Polish people in the destruction of European Jewry.
Sure, the infelicitous term “Polish death camps” (which prompted Polish outcry when President Obama used it in 2012) obscures the fact that Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and the other Nazi killing centers operated when Poland was German-occupied. But even accepting that semantic distinction, the Polish people still bear quite a bit of responsibility for the Holocaust.
Polish complicity ran both wide and deep. Throughout the country, police helped guard the ghettos, and railroad workers helped deport Jews to death camps. Scads of non-Jews eagerly turned in their neighbors and helped hunt them down. And once their towns were Judenrein (Jew-free) Poles moved into Jewish homes and claimed Jewish property as their own.
Sometimes, Poles organized murderous pogroms independent of the Nazis. Infamously, dozens of Poles organized a roundup of the Jews of Jedwabne, who were marched into a barn that was then set on fire, killing at least 340 of them. And even after the war, Polish Jews who survived faced further attacks from their neighbors, most notably in Kielce, where residents murdered 42 traumatized survivors and wounded 40.
True, some heroic Poles rescued Jews, fully aware of the deadly consequences for them and their families if they failed. (That wasn’t true in other countries, where Nazis rarely executed rescuers.)
But Poles overwhelmingly fell into the categories of perpetrator and bystander, especially the latter. I spoke to Dr. Michael Berenbaum, a leading Holocaust scholar, who told me that “in Poland, people were brutally unhappy with German occupation, but they were not unhappy with the German decision to get rid of the Jews.”
He pointed to a chilling quote by non-Jewish rescuer Adam Polewka, who told Warsaw Ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum that during the war Poles used to say that someday, Germans would murder Hitler for having caused Germany’s downfall, but Poles “will throw flowers at his grave as a token of gratitude for freeing Poland from the Jews.”
So, yes, Poland’s new law outlaws telling the truth about that nation’s murderous role in the Holocaust, and that’s contemptible. What’s worse, though, are the dramatic Polish pretenses of martyrdom, in which they claim to be equal victims of the Holocaust.
For example, former Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told the press on Wednesday that “We, the Poles, were victims, as were the Jews. It is a duty of every Pole to defend the good name of Poland. Just as the Jews, we were victims.”
And indeed, many journalists covering the controversy have parroted Polish claims that 1.5 million of them – or even two million – were victims of the Holocaust. While Poland did suffer at the hand of the Nazis, to refer to Poles as Holocaust victims (at least as the term is commonly understood) is an exaggeration bordering on absurdity.
Were Polish gentiles lined up naked, row after row, to fall into pits under heavy machine gun fire at Babi Yar? No. But tens of thousands of Jews were. Were Polish gentiles sent to death camps where they marched into gas chambers and suffocated, their bodies then carted off to crematoria to be burned? No. But millions of Jews were.
It’s true that Poles died horrible deaths in one section of the Auschwitz complex (known as “Auschwitz I”). More than 80,000 of them were starved and overworked and sometimes died at the gallows. But those tragic deaths of were dwarfed by the million Jews murdered at the neighboring killing center known as Birkenau (“Auschwitz II”).
Berenbaum explained to me that rather than a complete genocide, the Nazis wanted Poland to be a “subordinate subservient nation to the master race, the Germans.” As such, they murdered tens of thousands of Polish political, religious, and intellectual notables. Millions of Poles faced harsh detention programs or were shipped to Germany to work as slave laborers. And in a program Berenbaum called “awesomely evil,” 200,000 Polish children were kidnapped to be raised by German families.
It was terrible. It really was. But it wasn’t the Holocaust. As Berenbaum put it, the Nazis “did murder Poles but they did not want to annihilate them.”
While Poles who were murdered cannot be fairly called Holocaust victims, the nation did suffer greatly and the historical record is complicated. Yet under the law passed yesterday, Poland could very well arrest me for writing this article. It could try me and sentence me to prison for three years for questioning the “we weren’t complicit, we were equal victims” party line.
There’s a delicious irony, though.
The controversy over Poland’s law making it illegal to discuss its complicity in the Holocaust has caused people all over the world to discuss its complicity in the Holocaust. Serves them right.
David Benkof is a frequent contributor to The Daily Caller. His is the author of “Modern Jewish History for Everyone” and has a master’s degree in Jewish history from Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter(@DavidBenkof) or Facebook, or E-mail him at [email protected].
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.